This is the story of a painting, artist unknown, and the movie it inspired. Dated 1779, it hangs in Scotland's Scone Palace, and is a double portrait. Two young women, side by side in a garden, both dressed sumptuously in silks and pearls, stare forthrightly out at the viewer. The one on the right is blonde; she holds a book in her left hand, and reaches with her right to fondly clasp the forearm of the woman beside her. The one on the left – caught in motion, mirthful, with eyes sparkling – is biracial.
It's the remarkable equality of the two women – suggested not only by that touch on the arm, but also by their eye lines, which put them literally on the same level – that caught the imagination of the screenwriter Misan Sagay (Their Eyes Were Watching God), who is anglo-Nigerian, when she first saw the painting in the early 1990s. Years later she wrote a screenplay based on it, and sent that to Amma Asante, a British filmmaker whose parents were Ghanaian, with a postcard of the painting attached.
Meanwhile, around 2006, producer Damien Jones showed the same postcard to Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a British actress who had recently graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and who happens to be biracial. (Her mother is an English nurse; her father, a doctor, is originally from South Africa; she was raised in rural Oxfordshire.) Eventually, the four made a movie, Belle, about the story behind the painting, with Mbatha-Raw as the title character. It opened in select cities yesterday.
That story, though not well known, had an impact on history. The woman on the left in the painting was a real person, Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804), the daughter of a titled British admiral and a slave. Called Dido in the film, she was raised by her great-uncle, William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield, at his estate, Kenwood House, on an (almost) equal footing with her cousin Elizabeth, who was also raised there. (Elizabeth is the blonde in the painting. In the movie she's played by the Canadian actress Sarah Gadon.)
"The painting gave me a lot of inspiration for Dido's personality, just that still image," Mbatha-Raw, 30, said in a phone interview last week. "The lightness in her eyes, that vivacious and mischievous expression. I knew she had a personality and I wanted to bring out the feisty element to her
A biracial heiress raised as an aristocrat in 18th-century England is a good tale. What makes Belle a great one is that Murray was the Lord Chief Justice of England – the highest judge in the country – at the time of the Zong massacre. In 1781, 142 enslaved Africans were thrown into the sea from the Zong, a slave ship owned by a Liverpool syndicate. When the syndicate tried to collect insurance money for its lost "property," the subsequent trial became a rallying point for England's abolitionist movement. Many believe that Murray's rulings were influenced by his love for his great-niece.
"We don't often see women of colour in a period context outside of slavery," Mbatha-Raw says. "It was fascinating to shed a light on the complexity of Dido Belle's position. She was certainly privileged, but still not equal. She could dine with the family, for example, but not if company was present. It's a story about the nuances of racism and equality." Dido's cousin Elizabeth was not an heiress, so a subplot of the film involves the machinations of the marriage market (familiar to readers of Jane Austen), and the suggestion that women of all skin colours were treated as property.
Mbatha-Raw, who had read a lot of Austen growing up, rewatched Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility as part of her preparation for Belle. She also took etiquette classes, where she learned how to curtsy in a corset, and piano lessons. "I listened to a lot of Handel," she says, laughing. "It was important to understand the social conditioning, so we would know what we were fighting against. Amma [the director] stressed it's a story of instinct versus conditioning."
Naturally, Dido's biracial heritage caused the actress to reflect on her own. Though she grew up confident and well loved, "the issue of identity resonates for us all," she says. "I celebrate both sides of my heritage. I think it's enriching. But everybody goes through moments in life where they wonder where they fit in, what their place is. Just as I grew up watching Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet [in Sense and Sensibility], I was really excited to think that girls of mixed heritage might grow up watching Belle, and will be able to root themselves in a historical context and feel confident in their cultural heritage. Being biracial is not a modern concept. It's inspiring to know your history."
Though Belle is her first lead role in a film, Mbatha-Raw has been on an upward trajectory since graduating from RADA. She played two Shakespearean heroines, Juliet and Cleopatra, on stage in Manchester, and went from small roles in British TV (Dr. Who) to larger ones in the U.S. (She was on the short-lived J.J. Abrams show Undercovers, co-starred with Kiefer Sutherland in the series Touch, and taught Tom Hanks to ride a scooter in the film Larry Crowne.)
In July she'll appear opposite star Mila Kunis in Jupiter Ascending, a sci-fi epic from the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix); her role, reportedly, is a genetic splice, half human, half deer. Then in November, she'll play a pop star in Blackbird, a love story set in the music industry, from writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees). (Want to feel old? Minnie Driver plays her mother.)
It does seem, however, that Dido Belle is a role Mbatha-Raw was born to play – as proof, she stayed with the project for the seven years it took to pull financing together. Because it's a British story, she contends, it's about class as much as race. "Society defines you as something, but you don't have to accept that," she says.
"I feel we define ourselves by our actions. Dido finds the courage to be comfortable in her own skin. That's really the message, to be who you are, and to stand up for what you believe in."